Since it was brought up in the comments, I thought I’d bring back my statement on the “Brights.”

There’s a lot of noise on the net right now about The Brights, the idea that we can invent a pleasant new name for godless atheists and thereby improve our image. It’s being pushed by luminaries like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Here’s a nice quote that summarizes my opinion:

Perhaps the best of the available euphemisms for atheist is nontheist. It lacks the connotation of positive conviction that there is definitely no god, and it could therefore easily be embraced by Teapot or Tooth Fairy Agnostics. It is less familiar than atheist and lacks its phobic connotations. Yet, unlike a completely new coining, its meaning is clear. If we want a euphemism at all, nontheist is probably the best.

The alternative which I favor is to renounce all euphemisms and grasp the nettle of the word atheism itself, precisely because it is a taboo word carrying frissons of hysterical phobia. Critical mass may be harder to achieve than with some non-confrontational euphemism, but if we did achieve it with the dread word atheist, the political impact would be all the greater.

Guess who said that?

Richard Dawkins himself, as cited here. I have no idea what has happened to his good sense since.

I have absolutely no problem with the words “atheist”, “secular humanist”, “infidel”, “damned hellbound godless heathen”, or whatever names people want to apply to us. It’s very peculiar for an atheist to object to the terms “atheist” or “godless”, as if there was something negative about it. It’s even more pathetic to pick out some name you like, but that has never been applied to you, and ask that you be addressed by it—it smacks of a six-year-old who decides his name isn’t quite good enough, so he announces to the schoolyard that he’d like to be called “Spike” from now on. It’s laughable.

The argument that this is analogous to the appropriation of terms like “queer” and “gay” by the homosexual community is false. Those were used as terms of opprobrium by outsiders, and were seized and inverted by homosexuals to remove their sting, and as a mark of pride. This isn’t the case with “Bright”. It’s artificial and phony.

I’m proud to be non-human

Here’s a dilemma: I think Ron Numbers, the philosopher and historian of science, is a smart fellow and a net asset to the opposition to creationism, and I agree with him that a diversity of approaches to the issue is a good thing. My opinion could change, though, because I am experiencing considerable exasperation with the apologists for religion on the evolution side, and this interview with Numbers isn’t helping things. Here’s an example of the kind of nonsense that drives me nuts.

QUESTION: Are scientists in general atheistic?

MR. NUMBERS: The public often gets the impression that most scientists are non-believers. But, that’s not true. Just within the past year the journal Nature published a study that revealed even today roughly the same proportion of scientists believe in God as did 75 years ago. [The figure is almost 40%]

[Read more…]

Fear of the godless

That’s what it all boils down to, isn’t it? People are afraid of reason, because they know it erodes faith—better to foster ignorance than risk encouraging people to think. Brian Flemming, of The God Who Wasn’t There, links to an interesting account of what happened when an ‘open-minded’ church offered to screen his movie: they only showed two clips and bracketed them with lots of apologetic padding. I think they know what would happen if they let that bomb go off in the minds of their faithful congregants.

This stuff is going to get out there, though. Dawkins’ series, The Root of All Evil? is available online right now: here are links to the two parts, The God Delusion and The Virus of Faith. Dangerous stuff, that. Expose a child to the Enlightenment today!

Francis, I’m very disappointed in you

Francis Collins is a very smart, very disciplined, very hardworking man. He was the head of the Human Genome Project, and now he has written a book, The Language of God : A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and I have to tell you, it doesn’t look promising.

He talks about his ideas in an interview. It’s the usual dreary stuff we get from the god-botherers, and it’s clear that this is a subject on which he willingly turns his intellect to off.

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Now we have to import the godless

This is very good news, but don’t you wish we had a few more prominent American secularists to put on this advisory board? Welcome, Richard. Help us out!

Famed Scientist Richard Dawkins Joins the Advisory Board of the Secular
Coalition for America

Washington, DC — The Secular Coalition for America is
pleased to announce the addition of Richard Dawkins to its Advisory Board.
The Secular Coalition for America is the first lobbying organization
representing the interests of atheists, humanists, freethinkers, and other
nontheists in the nation’s capitol.

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Words mean nothing, so I’ve decided I’m now a mollusc

There were some interesting responses to my post on the god worm. There were some that were just annoying. I’m not impressed with the ones that make excuses for religion by calling me “naive” and lacking an impression of the diversity of religious belief out there; one bothersome strategy that I also saw in Barbara O’Brien’s post was an attempt to defocus religious belief.

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Finding vindication in utter confusion

Salon has an interview with Karen Armstrong, and I don’t know whether the interviewer just did a poor job or whether her ideas really are that sloppy and confused. She definitely has interesting ideas about religion, but while she’s dismissing simplistic ideas about gods and the afterlife on the one hand, she’s also clinging desperately and irrationally to nebulous beliefs about religion and spirituality and the art and poetry of myth. Armstrong is smart enough to see the hokum in dogma, but she’s still so strongly wedded to the idea of religion that she struggles to contrive fuzzy justifications for it.

Armstrong does say some things with which I can agree, and some might be a little surprising.

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A query from New Mexico

Not all my mail is from cranks and ravers; I actually get some nice and friendly and interesting mail, too. Like this one, from Hank Alme, who asks a good question:

To what extent does intellectual honesty require me to also read guys like Behe and Dembski, and to understand their arguments?

That’s an easy one: intellectual honesty doesn’t require that you read any of their crap. One of their great successes is that they’ve managed to convince many people that it’s only fair to read their books, often reading them instead of good science. It’s not true! You are far better off reading a solid science text than wasting it on their drivel.

The only reason to read any of their work is not because it’s the honest thing to do—if we carried that reasoning to its logical conclusion, I’ve got a library of stuff you need to read first—but because it will prepare you better to deal with their arguments. It takes the edge off that first moment of shock, when they say something so awesomely stupid that you find it incredible that anyone would even suggest such a thing. I’ve experienced that moment: your eyes focus on infinity, your lips move involuntarily as you try to parse the absurdity, your brain spins its wheels for a while as you mentally downshift, trying to get yourself in the proper frame of mind to handle the curious words of the deranged person in front of you. Otherwise, though, there isn’t much point to wading through the dreck.

So no, don’t read Behe and Dembski. Read Carroll and Dawkins and Gould. Understanding the science is all the preparation you need.

By the way, I’ve noticed that commenting is way down. It could be you’re all bored with me, or that it’s my fault since I’ve been distracted with grading and exam preparation, or most worrisome, the TypeKey requirement has stymied potential commenters, or at least discouraged them. Let me know if there’s a problem— the comments contribute much to the site, and I’d hate to see them chased away.

Blithering spiritualists

Palazzo has put me in a pissy mood, now. He’s mentioned those pompous god-botherers at the Templeton Foundation, who awarded 1.4 million dollars to that credulous gasbag, John Barrow.

When Selfish Gene author Richard Dawkins challenged physicist John Barrow on his formulation of the constants of nature at last summer’s Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship lectures, Barrow laughed and said, “You have a problem with these ideas, Richard, because you’re not really a scientist. You’re a biologist.”

For Barrow, biology is little more than a branch of natural history. “Biologists have a limited, intuitive understanding of complexity. They’re stuck with an inherited conflict from the 19th century, and are only interested in outcomes, in what wins out over others,” he adds. “But outcomes tell you almost nothing about the laws that govern the universe.” For physicists it is the laws of nature themselves that capture and structure the universe–and put brakes on it as well.

Yeah, and some physicists are little more than glorified numerologists.

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Godless physiology?

The “neurotheologist” Michael Persinger is a fellow with an interesting idea: that the sensation of god is a product of activity in the brain. He induces activity in the brain with electromagnetic fields, and some people feel a sense of oneness with the universe or that aliens are peering over their shoulder.

Richard Dawkins is an infamous atheist who needs no introduction here.

Put the two together, have Persinger strap his electromagnetic helmet on Dawkins’ head and stimulate the temporal lobes, the apparent seat of spiritual sensation, and what happens?


Horizon introduced Dr Persinger to one of Britain’s most renowned atheists, Prof Richard Dawkins. He agreed to try his techniques on Dawkins to see if he could give him a moment of religious feeling. During a session that lasted 40 minutes, Dawkins found that the magnetic fields around his temporal lobes affected his breathing and his limbs. He did not find god.

I guess some people are more resistant to the god delusion than others, even when spirituality is injected directly into their brains on a wire. It makes me wish I could try this gadget out.

(via Amused Muse)